How the Turkish military hit Syrian missile batteries

How the Turkish military hit Syrian missile batteries

Last week, a “rocket or missile,” probably a Scud, fired by the Syrian army, exploded in the Turkish border town of Reyhanlı, damaging a few buildings and military vehicles and leaving a 15-meter-wide crater, luckily leaving no casualties behind. 

On the same day, March 25, the Turkish military headquarters proudly announced two Turkish howitzers immediately pounded a Syrian artillery unit (which had fired the Syrian Scud). With Syria punished, the Turks were relieved. Though one question remains unanswered: How did the Turkish howitzers, which have a maximum range of 40 kilometers, hit a missile battery 180 kilometers away? “Lies, statistics and military lies” are not a new Turkish pastime.

Public attention quickly focused on the question of why the U.S. Patriot air and anti-missile defense systems did not intercept the Syrian Scud and protect Reyhanlı. Good question, especially when one recalls Turkey was told in official statements from the U.S. that the Patriots deployed at the Incirlik air base and the Kahramanmaraş and Gaziantep provinces (as well as the NATO radar deployed in Kürecik) would protect Turkey’s entire south and southeast.

Hidden from public attention was the fact the Patriots are not designed to protect large swathes of land; wherever they are deployed, they can only protect areas in their near vicinity. And, as prominent missile defense expert Sıtkı Egeli forcefully reminds us, the X-band radar in Kürecik is not designed to intercept a Syrian Scud coming from 180 kilometers away but rather (most probably) an Iranian ballistic missile with a range of 2,000 kilometers. As this column argued at the time of their deployment, the Patriot batteries were stationed on Turkish soil not to protect Turkish land en masse and farmers in southeast Turkey but to protect the NATO radar at Kürecik from a potential Iranian attack.

A more realistic question regarding the 15-meter-wide crater in Reyhanlı could be: What if the Syrian Scud hit a military barracks and killed a squad of Turkish soldiers, or hit downtown Reyhanlı, instead of an empty village lot, and killed hundreds of civilians? What do the Turkish military’s rules of engagement dictate in regards to retaliation? 

Well, yes, in theory, Turkey’s military can be extremely punishing as shown by “Operation Abduct My Ancestor’s Tomb.” Hopefully, in retaliation, the Turkish army will not try to hit Syrian missile batteries 180 kilometer away using howitzers with 40 kilometer firing ranges. Or it will not tell the public its howitzers hit both the Syrian batteries and Bashar al-Assad’s palace in Damascus. Or that it will launch “Operation Abduction From Seraglio” and bring Mr. al-Assad to Ankara. 

That leaves only one military option for retaliation: air raids. It would have been a perfect election move. Imagine the scenes of Turkish fighters taking off in squadrons to bomb the dictator in Damascus and the epic stories published in the yellow press about the heroic “Operation Sunni Slap on Nusayri Face.” Sadly, that is not an option simply because it is not militarily (and politically) feasible. 

Indeed, the Turkish air force has the gear and capabilities to send hundreds of fighter jets over Syrian skies and bomb every piece of pro-al-Assad concrete down there. But there is a minor problem. At the end of the operation, the Turkish fleet would probably be without 50 aircraft. Yes, the Russian air defense systems are protecting Syrian soil. But it’s not just that. 

Is Turkey, with no long-range air and anti-missile system in its military inventory prepared to see in its skies Syrian Scud-C missiles with the ability to even hit Ankara with their 750-kilometer range? Probably, it is not. Fortunately, the Sunni supremacist euphoria in Ankara still harbors crumbs of reason.  

The Turks are lucky. They have a mighty army that can hit enemy targets 180 kilometers away with 40-kilometer range howitzers. And a government which is only insane, not suicidal.